Evictions are surging in several US cities due to escalating rents and decreased aid

In April, 70-year-old Dana Williams, who has significant health issues, including serious heart problems, hypertension, and asthma, pleaded to delay eviction from his two-bedroom apartment in Atlanta, holding a doctor’s note in his hand and using a walker to enter the court. Despite the judge’s sympathy, he was obligated to evict Williams and his 25-year-old daughter, De’mai Williams, as they had not paid $8,348 in rent and fees on their $940-a-month apartment, as per the state’s law. They have been living in uncertainty since then.

As they could not afford anything else with Dana Williams’ $900 monthly social security check and his daughter’s $800 biweekly income as his caretaker from a state agency, they were compelled to shift to a run-down Atlanta hotel room where there was no refrigerator or microwave, broken furniture, and the bathroom ceiling was leaking. Despite the weekly rent of $275, they found it tough to manage. De’mai Williams stated that she didn’t want to remain in such conditions, particularly because of her father’s health. She wished to move out before August, which is her father’s birthday.

The Williams family’s situation is not uncommon, as millions of tenants across the United States, from New York State to Las Vegas, are either facing or have already been evicted. Although there was a lull in evictions during the pandemic, landlords are now filing more eviction notices due to the increasing cost of rent and limited affordable housing. Most low-income tenants are no longer able to depend on pandemic resources that kept them housed in the past, and many are struggling to recover due to a lack of stable employment or wages that do not match the rising costs of housing, food, and other essential expenses.

These multiple evictions are leading to a rise in homelessness in the US. According to Daniel Grubbs-Donovan, a research specialist at Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, the end of protections, the conclusion of the federal moratorium, and the depletion of most emergency rental assistance money have contributed to this rise.

As per Grubbs-Donovan, “low-income renters are in a much worse situation than before the pandemic across the United States due to various factors like significant rent hikes during the pandemic, pandemic-related financial challenges, and inflation.” Unfortunately, this has contributed to the multifaceted eviction crisis countrywide that is causing homelessness to skyrocket in many places.

The Eviction Lab, which monitors filings in nearly three dozen cities and ten states, reports that eviction filings have risen over 50% higher than the pre-pandemic average in some cities; landlords typically file approximately 3.6 million eviction cases yearly. Among the most severely impacted cities are Houston, which saw eviction rates increase by 56% in April and 50% in May; in Minneapolis/St. Paul, rates rose by 106% in March, 55% in April, and 63% in May. Other cities, including Nashville and Phoenix, also saw a significant increase in May with rates rising by 35% and 33%, respectively. Rhode Island saw a similar jump, with May numbers rising 32% higher than the pre-pandemic average.

The latest eviction data reflects trends that started last year when the Eviction Lab reported nearly 970,000 eviction filings for locations under its tracking, marking a 78.6% increase compared to 2020 when most of the country followed an eviction moratorium. By December, eviction filings had almost returned to pre-pandemic levels. Meanwhile, rent costs nationwide have increased about 5% since last year and 30.5% since 2019, according to Zillow. The National Low Income Housing Coalition states that there is a 7.3 million affordable housing unit shortfall across the country, leaving tenants with few options for relocation. The pandemic-era safety net prevented eviction for many endangered tenants. The federal government, states, and localities implemented eviction moratoriums during the pandemic, which have now expired. Moreover, there was $46.5 billion in federal Emergency Rental Assistance, which helped tenants pay rent and provided various tenant protections, but most of it has already been distributed or allocated, and additional calls for funding by Congress have failed.

According to Democratic US Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, “The concerning surge in evictions to levels seen before the pandemic is a stark reminder of the immediate need for every level of the government to take action to ensure people have a safe place to live.” Pressley is calling on Congress to pass a bill that would address illegal evictions by funding legal help for tenants, keeping evictions off credit reports, and more.

As housing courts restart their activities, many people are becoming entangled in the system again, such as 79-year-old Maria Jackson.

Jackson had worked tirelessly for almost twenty years to establish a loyal clientele as a massage therapist in Las Vegas, a city that has experienced one of the highest surges in eviction filings across the country. However, her hard work was abruptly hindered due to the pandemic-induced shutdown in March 2020, which led to the collapse of her business. She was compelled to sell her car and apply for food stamps.

As a result of being behind on her monthly rent of $1,083 and owing $12,489 in arrears, Jackson was evicted in March. Eventually, she had to relocate and move in with a former client who resided approximately an hour northeast of Las Vegas.

Reflecting on her dire situation, Jackson pondered, “Who would have thought that this could happen to someone who has dedicated their life to working hard?”

Last month she found a room in Las Vegas for $400 a month, paid for with her $1,241 monthly social security check. It’s not home, but “I’m one of the lucky ones,” she said.

“I could be in a tent or at a shelter right now.”

In upstate New York, evictions are rising after a moratorium lifted last year. Forty of the state’s 62 counties had higher eviction filings in 2022 than before the pandemic, including two where eviction filings more than doubled compared to 2019.

“How do we care for the folks who are evicted … when the capacity is not in place and ready to roll out in places that haven’t experienced a lot of eviction recently?” said Russell Weaver, whose Cornell University lab tracks evictions statewide.

Housing advocates had hoped the Democrat-controlled state Legislature would pass a bill requiring landlords to provide justification for evicting tenants and limit rent increases to 3% or 1.5 times inflation. But it was excluded from the state budget and lawmakers failed to pass it before the legislative session ended this month.

“Our state Legislature should have fought harder,” said Oscar Brewer, a tenant organizer facing eviction from the apartment he shares with his 6-year-old daughter in Rochester.

In Texas, evictions were kept down during the pandemic by federal assistance and the moratoriums. But as protections went away, housing prices skyrocketed in Austin, Dallas and elsewhere, leading to a record 270,000 eviction filings statewide in 2022.

Advocates were hoping the state Legislature might provide relief, directing some of the $32 billion budget surplus into rental assistance. But that hasn’t happened.

As the crisis of eviction intensifies, many experts are emphasizing the criticality of addressing the issue immediately. According to Ben Martin, a research director at nonprofit Texas Housers, “It’s a huge mistake to miss our shot here. If we don’t address it now, the crisis is only going to get worse.”

Despite this alarming situation, some of the pandemic’s protective measures are now being made permanent and are having a positive impact on eviction rates. Since January 2021, over 200 measures have been passed nationwide, including legal representation for tenants, sealing eviction records, and mediation to resolve cases before they reach court, as reported by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

As a result of these measures, eviction filings have been kept to a minimum in several cities, including New York City and Philadelphia. In May, eviction filings were reportedly 41% lower than pre-pandemic levels in the former, and 33% lower in the latter.

A right-to-counsel program and the fact that housing courts aren’t prosecuting cases involving rent arears are among the factors keeping New York City filings down.

In Philadelphia, 70% of the more than 5,000 tenants and landlords who took part in the eviction diversion program resolved their cases. The city also set aside $30 million in assistance for those with less than $3,000 in arears, and started a right-to-counsel program, doubling representation rates for tenants.

The future is not so bright for Williams and his daughter, who remain stuck in their dimly-lit hotel room. Without even a microwave or nearby grocery stores, they rely on pizza deliveries and snacks from the hotel vending machine.

Williams used to love having his six grandchildren over for dinner at his old apartment, but those days are over for now.

“I just want to be able to host my grandchildren,” he said, pausing to cough heavily. “I just want to live somewhere where they can come and sit down and hang out with me.”